November 26, 2008

Fedora 10 proves infrastructure matter

Author: Bruce Byfield

Glancing at the features list for Fedora 10, at first you might be unimpressed. Many of the features are basically infrastructure improvements, fixing known problems and enhancing performance while laying the groundwork for future developments. However, infrastructure affects almost everything you do with your computer, and the more you use Fedora 10, the more you are likely to conclude that -- one or two minor problems aside -- this may be the strongest Fedora release yet, as well as the first glimpse of its future.

Fedora 10 comes in three formats: A single DVD, or a complete set of six CDs with the GNOME desktop, or a single live CD featuring either GNOME or KDE. You can download all these formats using BitTorrent, Jigdo, or a direct download. For efficiency, I used the live GNOME CD, reasoning that I would immediately want to upgrade online anyway.

Installation

Installing Fedora from a live CD is like installing any live CD these days -- you add minimal information, such as your keyboard locale and timezone, and have no control over the software selection, which is minimal. The Fedora live CD install is mildly unusual in asking for a hostname for your computer and giving such bootloader options such as password protection.

The one place where the installer differs from earlier incarnations is in the partition dialog. While some earlier Fedora installations defaulted to using a logical volume manager, now that is one of several options that also include ordinary partitioning and RAID volumes. You also have the option to encrypt a partition at the clicking of a text box.

As you boot into the system for the first time, you run a wizard that is largely unchanged from earlier releases. The wizard starts with a brief explanation of free software licensing, then steps you through creating an everyday account and setting the time, ending with a request that you send hardware information to the Fedora project.

Desktop and software selection

The second time you boot into Fedora 10, when you are undistracted by the wizard, you should notice that the new release is significantly faster than previous ones, thanks largely to Plymouth, a new graphical boot loader. On my test system, Fedora 10 booted in just under 28 seconds, compared to 45 seconds for Fedora 9. Part of this improvement is due to the distro no longer stopping to display the bootloader or system messages.

When you log in, you are greeted with Fedora 10's new Solar theme, which features a blue sun full of flares and sunspots on the right site of the screen, and a darker blue star field on the rest of the desktop. Solar is one of Fedora's more aesthetically pleasing default themes, but the beauty of the new release is more than cosmetic. Fedora 10 is the first release of any GNU/Linux distribution that has detected my test machine's sound card out of the box, as well as my laptop's webcam. Improved sound and webcam support were both priorities for this release, and, in my case at least, Fedora 10 delivers what it promises.

In addition, the software selection is up-to-the-minute, with a 2.6.27 kernel, OpenOffice.org 3.0.0.9, Firefox 3.02, GIMP 2.6, and Empath 2.24. GNOME 2.24.1 is featured as a desktop, but you can also install KDE 4.1.2 or Xfce 4.4.3, as well as a variety of other window managers. A new choice in Fedora 10 is Sugar, the desktop for the One Laptop Per Child program, complete with artwork, calculator, terminal, and word processor.

Software installation

PackageKit has come a long way since it was first introduced in Fedora 9 and was capable of working only with a single package at a time. In Fedora 10, it is not only long past that limitation, but sporting a new interface. Now, PackageKit includes three additional views -- All, Package Collections, and Newest Packages -- at the top of the left pane, and you can search for category groups by selecting the option in the View menu. All these changes make locating and installing software with PackageKit easier.

Even more importantly, Fedora 10 now automatically advises you about what package you need when support is lacking for a particular audio format. Faced with this situation in the past -- or in most distributions -- you would have to open a software installation tool and search for the support you need, an effort that is made more difficult by the fact that many package names bear little relation to their functions. In Fedora 10, PackageKit suggests a package for you, and all you need to do is agree to install it.

According to Fedora Leader Paul Frields, this feature is currently limited to audio codecs in order to test it. If all goes well, its use could be greatly expanded. It could, for example, be used to install a program you need to view or edit a file, or to install the fonts you need so that a document displays properly. When a choice exists, the feature could offer it to you, and perhaps list the popularity of each choice. This is an idea that, in hindsight, is as obvious as automounting external drives.

Administration and security

Fedora 10 seems especially rich in changes to administration and security. Both network and printer configuration tools have become more graphical, with the complete set of configurations banished to popup menus, where they are not immediately intimidating. Network configuration for wireless connections now includes the ability to use a machine as an impromptu router, while printer configuration automatically detects supported new printers and offers to install drivers for them, much as Fedora 10 does with audio codecs.

A new tool for administration is FirstAidKit, a system diagnosis tool. Essentially a command-line program, FirstAidKit comes with a GUI, as well as plugins for dealing with passwords, RAID arrays, and Xserver problems, and helps you solve any difficulties with these systems. While the GUI did not work during my testing, the command-line program is sound enough to be a major new addition to Fedora. However, it would be most useful on a flash drive or other live system, where it could run independently of the hard drive.

The second major administration tool in Fedora 10 is the Security Audit Tool for users who don't want a hands-on approach to security. Coming like FirstAidKit in a command-line and graphical interface, Sectool is a battery of 30 tests on everything from the bootloader and cron to permissions and SELinux. You can run each of these tests on up to five levels: Naive, Desktop, Network, Server, and Paranoid. Most of Sectool's tests give results in less than five minutes, with each part of the test labeled Passed, Error, or Warning. But the tool does not specify what exactly each of the five levels means in terms of system configuration, nor how to correct any problems found (although some, like faulty permissions, should be reasonably obvious to most users).

Conclusion

Except for the codec advisor, little in Fedora 10 is radically new. However, if you imagine that means the release has nothing to offer, you are wrong. Improvements to infrastructure may not immediately capture the imagination, but fixing and streamlining subsystems and laying the groundwork for future improvements soon adds up. Users may overlook a single new feature any time they aren't using it, but basic improvements are obvious all the time, and Fedora 10 has so many that you can't help noticing the improvements constantly.

Fedora 10 is the first release of any distribution in a long time that has actually felt like an upgrade to me. With more hardware detected, increased performance, and improved interfaces, Fedora 10 is an unusually strong release, with tantalizing hints of even better to come.

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